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Tookie Dies, So Arnold Can Live

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Nobody should be surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger has denied clemency to Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Politicians rarely suffer for taking the toughest possible stance on questions of criminal justice, and Arnold is in quite enough trouble with his Republican Party grassroots not to want to go looking for more -- which is what he would have been doing if he had decided the one-time leader of the Crips deserved a second chance at life.

That said, the five-page statement released by his office today is staggering in its callousness and cynical disregard for anything other than the need to find arguments to bolster a foregone conclusion. Tookie Williams' clemency petition was based on the argument that he is a redeemed man -- as evidenced by his output of speeches, articles and children's books over the past decade urging young people away from the destructive gang life he led, and by the peace protocols he has authored that have been used to broker truces between street gangs from New Jersey to South Africa. He has been nominated numerous times for the Nobel Peace Prize, notably by a group of Swiss parliamentarians, and earlier this year was awarded a Presidential Call to Service Award for demonstrating what George W. Bush, in the citation, called "the outstanding character of America."

How does Schwarzenegger respond to all that?

First, he says the awards and nominations do not carry "persuasive weight." (Actually, he relegates this to a mere footnote, without so much as discussing the fact that Williams has a dedicated international following of prestigious supporters.)

Secondly, he says Williams' anti-gang activities are "hard to assess," but that the continuing pervasiveness of gang violence "leads one to question the efficacy of Williams' message." This is an astonishing line of argument: essentially, it says that because Tookie Williams has not single-handedly ended all gang violence everywhere, he deserves to die.

And that's not all. Predictably, Schwarzenegger berates Williams for failing to acknowledge guilt in the four murders for which he was sent to Death Row. But he also dismisses the written apology Williams issued in 1997 for the damage done by himself and his fellow Crips as mere "innuendo and inference" -- even though Williams has been entirely true to his concluding vow "to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions."

Most staggering of all is the argument that Williams may not in fact be a reformed character at all. The document says this judgment is based on "a close look at Williams' post-arrest and post-conviction conduct," but it provides just two instances. The first is a plan Williams made -- but never carried out -- to break out of jail before his trial. We're talking about a non-incident from 25 years ago, more than a decade before Williams claimed to have turned his life around.

The second instance is the dedication Williams included in his 1998 book Life In Prison -- to "Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Ramona Africa, John Africa, Leonard Peltier, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid, George Jackson, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the countless other men, women, and youths who have to endure the hellish oppression of living behind bars".

The governor's statement comments: "The mix of individuals on this list is curious. Most have violent pasts and some have been convicted of committing heinous murders, including the killing of law enforcement." In particular, the inclusion of George Jackson, founder of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, "is a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems."

It says something about the quality of Schwarzenegger's argument that he had to go foraging in a book dedication to find even a hint of dirt against the man he has decided to send to the gallows tonight. The argument is absurd, anyway: Williams is merely espousing the well-worn line that men of color imprisoned by a predominantly white social order are worthy of support, regardless of the circumstances. You don't have to agree with Williams' point of view to see there is absolutely no criminal intent in it.

The real truth of Schwarzenegger's document is inadvertently demonstrated by its very absurdity: that there are no good arguments to deny the genuineness of Tookie Williams' redemption. That, in turn, tells us just how political the clemency decision is: Arnold has a career to resuscitate, so Tookie has to die.